General Ratko Mladic accompanied by United Nations Protection Force Soldiers at Srebrenica. Mladic is on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. Photo by Michael Stravato

Responsibility to Protect

“Through error, misjudgment and an inability to recognize the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.” — United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, 1999

Kofi Annan was referring to the massacre of approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in a town, which the United Nations had designated as a United Nations Safe Zone and was protected by a contingent from the United Nations Protection Force from the Dutch Army.

In 1998 on the eve of the massacre that had been described as the worst catastrophe in Europe since World War II, the NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR) discussed plans to control a remembrance ceremony planned by the Mothers of Srebrenica. Watching the Predator UAV feeds on the anniversary, I saw what happens when strong nations stand by and allow the slaughter of innocents.

Over the years, world leaders describe the massacre as an event that the world can never let happen again. In 2005, the United Nations began efforts to establish a “Responsibility to Protect” agenda that recognized a duty for the international community to protect the innocents. Today the Bosnian Serb leaders responsible for the massacre are standing trial at the International Criminal Tribune for Yugoslavia while their supporters claim the Bosnian Muslims committed the war crimes.

The duty to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities lies first and foremost with the State, but the international community has a role that cannot be blocked by the invocation of sovereignty. Sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; it is a charge of responsibility where States are accountable for the welfare of their people. This principle is enshrined in article 1 of the Genocide Convention and embodied in the principle of “sovereignty as responsibility” and in the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. — United Nations Office of the Special Advisor to Prevent Genocide

On the anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre, I wrote an essay “Srebrenica: We Could Have Prevented This Horror, We Chose Not To” afterwards a friend commented privately to me that these sorts of events happen, everyone condemns them, but when it happens again everyone stands back and watches. I reflected on what he said to me and his statement at first set me back but I then began thinking how thousands have died at the hands of Islamist in the Middle East with very little reaction from the international community.

My experiences in Bosnia have challenged me to look beyond the interest of one nation and look at the greater responsibility of men to protect other men. My experiences in Bosnia: sitting in the operations center in 1998, making several trips to Srebrenica in 2007–2008 to talk to survivors, and seeing the ghost town created when the town’s residents opted not to return home I return to the UN’s idea of Responsibility to Protect. How can a civilized society allow these atrocities to continue and I think back to my friends comments, is he right? It appears so.

On the anniversary of the July massacre, the ghosts of Srebrenica come back to haunt the world. I watched the coffins of the newly identified dead buried among the others that died in July 1995 and I listen to the speeches of leaders saying, “We can’t let this happen again.” Today, I carry a pen instead of wearing a uniform and carrying a gun for my nation. What happened twenty years ago continues to affect how I look at armed conflict and civilians caught in the turmoil. I will do what I can to tell the story of the atrocity of Srebrenica and try to maintain this basic human right of existence.

Dave Mattingly is a writer and national security consultant. He retired from the U.S. Navy and served in Bosnia in 1998 and 2006–2008. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, NETGALLEY Challenge 2015 and a NETGALLEY Professional Reader.

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